The giant panda is probably the most popular animal on earth. It is known worldwide as the symbol of conservation. The sad fact is though that the giant panda still remains one of the most endangered animals on the planet.
The giant panda, with it’s black and white coat and black eye patches is easily recognizable. A grown panda weights 155 to 280 pounds. Their front limbs have more muscle than the hind limbs. This makes them better at climbing. Giant pandas have a sixth finger which is also known as a falser thumb. This false thumb is an extension of the sesamoid bone in the wrist. It is able to oppose the true thumb giving them the ability to grip bamboo.
The giant panda, like all other bears, is classified as carnivore, being in the order Carnivora. However, it does not eat meat and is in fact an herbivore. Despite the fact that their digestive system can not properly break down plant material bamboo makes up 99 percent of the giant panda’s diet. Sometimes they eat honey, yams, and eggs as well.
Pandas are difficult to study in the wild because of their very shy nature. Giant pandas become sexually mature at 5 1/2 or 6 1/2 months old. Many males will compete for and fight over a single female panda. The males will also look for more than one female to mate with. Giant pandas mate in the spring and pregnancy lasts 97 to 163 days after which they give birth to a single cub. Most cubs born in captivity die before they reach 6 months old. In the wild, panda cubs become completely weaned and about 9 months old and will leave the mother once the mother becomes pregnant again. The panda is usually about 18 months old by this time. In the wild giant pandas only live about 10 to 15 years. In captivity they can live up to 30.
As of 2004 there was an estimated population of only 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild. Their habitat has also been diminished to only 14,000 square feet. This in not one single large area either but is many different areas scattered around six mountain ranges in China. The main reason for the giant panda’s low numbers is loss of habitat. As the population of China exploded many forests were cleared. The fragmentation of the population is also a big problem because it prevents pandas from being able to travel to new areas when their supply of bamboo is depleted in their present area. Fragmentation can also lead to inbreeding which in turn can lead to birth defects and higher disease susceptibility. Pandas are also sometimes still poached for their skins.
China has made much progress to help in the conservation of the panda population even though more is still needed. The programs now in place in China reflect a $1 billion annual investment over the last decade. There are also now very strict punishments for poaching. Caught panda poachers have been given long term imprisonment sentences and even death penalties.
Giant pandas are still far from being saved. You can help save the pandas by donating as little as $15 to WWF (World Wildlife Foundation).